Communicating effectively with your congregation is essential to your success as a leader. And in the age of electronic media, communicating effectively has become fraught with unique issues and challenges. Whether you are preparing a mass email that is sent to your entire congregation, a single email to a Sunday school teacher, a Facebook post on your personal page, a website for your local church, or PowerPoint slides for your next sermon, your ability to communicate effectively can inspire or alienate others.
While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, here are seven considerations that can enhance your electronic communication and ensure its effectiveness.
1. Remember the triangle
Everything we do as leaders in the body of Christ should be done “as unto the Lord,” communication included. All the communication that comes from you, your staff, and your church should follow three hallmarks of good communication: think of it as a triangle, all three sides necessary to ensure a well-constructed message. First, be clear and logical. The messages you communicate should be spelled correctly, should be grammatically correct, and should be logically structured and easy for anyone to follow. Second, your messages should support the values and mission you embrace as a congregation. Third, the messages should build your credibility, as well as that of your church as a godly faith community. This triangle should be the hallmark of any and all communication that proceeds from your office and your church, each side supporting the other two. As you ensure a logical structure, your credibility is enhanced; as you appeal to the values and mission of your congregation, your structure is supported. Each side of the triangle is dependent on the other two.
For example, if your use of electronic communication includes PowerPoint slides for choruses or sermons, test them with the three points of the triangle: 1) Are they logical, easy to read and understandable from anywhere in the sanctuary; are they spelled correctly? 2) Do the concepts and ideas contained support your church mission? 3) Does the appearance and message build your credibility as a body of faith that is trustworthy?
If you have a church website, ask yourself the same questions regarding your internet presence. Seek input from others and ask them the three questions as well. Consult with laity in your congregation who have interests in these areas or find someone within your community who can help. There is no reason not to communicate well. When you write a personal email, post a message on your Facebook page, or tweet a message on Twitter, keep the triangle in mind there as well: is the message clear and well-stated, does it support the mission of my faith community and my personal witness as well, and does it enhance my credibility and that of my congregation?
2. Be consistent and reliable
Electronic communication becomes a detriment when it becomes stale. Particularly concerning your church website or e-newsletter, consistency and reliability are essential. Ensure that the information is always current and correct. Make changes often enough to keep the site reliable. Update dates and events. Update images. Do the same for your church Facebook site. If the information is not dynamic, there’s no need for your members or visitors to return to it.
If you send an e-newsletter, put information in the same location in each edition, so that members always know where to look for the information they need. Set the newsletter for delivery at the same day and time each week or month, depending on your chosen frequency.
As you communicate via email, respond to inquiries and questions within 24 hours as often as you can. Nothing is more frustrating than emailing a staff member with a question or concern and receiving no reply. Respect the concerns and voices of your congregation by responding to them in a timely way, consistently.
3. Respect the privacy and identity of your members
Do not communicate personal information on a wide open list that may be read by members and others. Do not distribute email addresses or phone numbers to others. In too many cases, information like this can be utilized to harm or harass your members. Protect their identities in everything you communicate.
E-newsletter templates ensure privacy, in that the distribution list is completely hidden; consequently, each contact’s email address is protected. Remember this when emailing any group, even if it’s just a few people in your congregation. Invariably, someone on the list may gain access to email addresses and forward spam or unwanted information to the others.
This safeguard also applies to the distribution of an email prayer list. While members may covet the congregation’s prayers, that does not mean they want everyone to know the intimate details of their infirmity or challenge. Failure to protect your members’ privacy may allow your prayer lists, e-newsletters, or any other form of communication to degenerate into fodder for salacious gossip. The same is true of Facebook or Twitter posts. While you may not mind others knowing your location and your activity, members of your congregation may desire different levels of privacy. Protect the privacy of your members.
Finally, be cautious in your communication to never broadcast when your pastor (or staff) is out of town or away, particularly if their family is not traveling with them and may be home alone. While you may be confident in your members and their motives, an electronic communication can be forwarded to anyone.
4. Avoid noise
If you communicate haphazardly or too frequently, any type of communication can become “noise”: communication that is no longer valued by your members. Communicate during the times you have set and only then. In addition, avoid communicating from several different departments within your church at different times. Bundle your communication. Rather than sending an email from the pastor, an e-newsletter from the children’s department, and another email from the youth pastor, design one central piece that communicates everything. Again, this places value on that one piece or tool, and it shows you respect the time of your members.
In our local context, the central communication pieces are our e-newsletter and our church website. Our local church began distribution of an e-newsletter about three years ago. We utilize a company online that provides templates, images, and online support that is easy to follow and understand. For less than $250/year, we have been able to produce a quality piece that is distributed to our 180-member contact list once a week. It offers information on upcoming events, links to our staff emails, columns from our pastor and associates, lectionary readings for the upcoming service, follow-up reflective questions to the previous Sunday’s sermon, schedules for children’s and youth activities, and photographs of events that have occurred in our life as a church. The preparation takes about three hours a week, but the feedback has been tremendous. Our members feel connected and a part of the body, even when they have to miss weekly meetings for extended periods of time. This simple form of communication has been consistent and reliable and is now depended on by most within our congregation.
Our e-newsletter and our Sunday announcements also refer members to our church website. It is updated regularly and provides the basic information about our services and staff, as well as descriptions of ministries, and ways others may become involved.
5. Do not ignore other forms of communication and use electronic media for everything
Electronic media are valuable tools, but they are not the only way to communicate, and in many instances, they are not the best way to communicate. Particularly if you must communicate about an emotionally charged issue, simply meet members face-to-face. Electronic communication does not have the benefit of your body language or your tone of voice. Members are left to interpret your words through their own filters. In some contexts, a face-to-face meeting or a phone call may be the best means for communicating.
6. Use language that everyone can understand, even if they are not churched
Our language can quickly devolve into “church-speak,” often before we realize it. Be careful to communicate in language that is easy for everyone to understand, no matter how long they have been a part of your congregation. Avoid clichés and phrases that are familiar to those of us who have been in the church for years, but completely unfamiliar to those who may be new converts or seekers.
Likewise, avoid using acronyms without indicating their full names. New members may not know the meaning of NYC (Nazarene Youth Conference) or NYI (Nazarene Youth International) or other abbreviations that have become ubiquitous in our own inner circles. Always refer to these organizations by their full names in your first reference to them in each publication or communication and then use the acronym for subsequent mentions.
7. Use as many different methods of communication as you can effectively
Different members prefer different methods of communication. You may have members in your congregation who are extremely comfortable with email. With smart phone capabilities, many of us are constantly checking our inboxes. However, there may be others in your congregation who don’t even have a personal computer, let alone an email address. If this is a significant number of folks in your congregation, do not fail to communicate with them via snail mail or other forms.
Social media like Facebook and Twitter, websites, blogs—all of these are simply outlets for your message. And if your members are there, perhaps you should be too. All present opportunities to extend your message, your vision, and your community.
Communicating effectively can strengthen your church. You can galvanize a diverse group of busy people by communicating with them regularly. You can cast a vision for what God is doing among you and rally them for future efforts that are essential to your work in the kingdom. Conversely, by failing to communicate well, by failing to consider your audience and their needs, you can also alienate and confuse your congregants. Careful attention to these details will go a long way in creating a strong sense of community.
RHONDA DEAN-KYNCL is Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma but is also the editor of her local church e-newsletter at Norman Community Church of the Nazarene in Norman, Oklahoma.